Like a dog on a leash

Nikita Voloboev
Aug 28, 2017 · 4 min read

Lately, I have been reading and thinking more about my privacy.

What information do I lose control over every time I use some commercial software whose business model is mining as much of one’s personal data as possible.

The answer to that although obvious is quite scary. And that is that you lose everything. Everything that you give that can be captured, logged and recorded.

When you visit a website like Facebook for example and create an account, every information that you then give to Facebook, your name, your address, gender and whatever else you inputted in the fields they provide is now tied to your profile. This profile alongside the information you gave Facebook already is now in the process of continuous refinement as you use any of Facebook’s services. WhatsApp, Instagram, the Facebook website or app itself plus a lot more other small websites and services that Facebook aggressively buys.

So then when any time you visit the Facebook site or any of Facebook owned services, any action that you do on them is logged and recorded and stored forever. What time and from where you logged in. What device and browser did you use to login. What did you do next. Did you type a status? Perhaps you wrote something and deleted it after. That too gets logged. What searches did you make, what profiles did you visit and for how long. What posts did you like and what posts did you look at the most. What messages and photographs you sent to your friends. All gets logged and recorded and stored in one of the growing in numbers data centers that Facebook owns. All of this data is no longer yours.

And then if you decide to close Facebook and go do something else in your browser, Facebook will still track you through cookies that it leaves in your browser as well as through the various ‘share’ and ‘like’ buttons that Facebook has all across the internet. And even worse, even if you never created a Facebook account, a profile on you will still be built. A so called shadow profile. It will be built through people who know ‘you’ that already exist in the Facebook network and continuously feed data about you and other people they know, through messages, photographs or even their private contacts list that Facebook/WhatsApp asks you to give them access to when you download their apps.

This all is only scratching the surface of what Facebook collects. But the reality is that you are not in control of it at all. As the saying goes

“If the product is free, you are the product.”

And Facebook is not alone in its desires to mine as much of one’s personal data as possible. This data is very valuable both to advertisers who want to sell their products as well as to the companies themselves as they can then use all this data to continuously try to improve their services using machine learning.

So what can you do?

The truth is that a lot of people are oblivious to what really happens when you use ‘free’ services like Facebook or Google.

I watched an interesting documentary about Facebook that you can watch here (password: Facebookistan). And in there it mentions, what I think is a perfect analogy of how you can think about this kind of mass data collection about yourself.

“Many people don’t care about what happens with their data or what information they give out freely because they are like dogs on a leash where only when the leash gets pulled do they get that something is wrong.”

The arguments such as I have nothing to hide are really silly too because with this much information about you that you freely give out, you can form very powerful mental models of what you like, how you think and what you may even think next. And perhaps you have nothing to hide now, or so you think, this can all change in the future. And when you get into the habit of simply not caring about your digital fingerprint in this world, which is extremely easy to do nowadays, you forget about this little fact that every action you do, gets recorded and logged forever using these ‘free’ services.

So. This sounds pretty bleak. Can you do something about it?

The answer to that is yes, you can. First though, you have to start caring. And to start caring, you have to educate yourself on why you should care in the first place.

But deleting your Facebook, Instagram account does not work if there is no alternative in sight.

Fortunately, privacy respecting alternatives exist and you may be surprised that often times they are better than what you’re trying to replace.

I made a curated list of various privacy disrespecting websites/services and alternatives you can use to replace them. Since this list is open source and is on GitHub, you can contribute to it directly to improve it.

I hope this article may give some inspiration to you so you can use these ‘free’ services with good consciousness of how your data is continuously being collected. And if you wish to stop that and care, I hope you now know that alternatives exist and they can only get better as more people start using them and show that they care about their privacy.

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